Torben Elgaard Jensen on User-Driven Innovation

Torben Elgaard Jensen is a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) until August 2011. He takes a break from his position as Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor at the DTU Management Technical University of Denmark. He arrived in early January and sat down with Timothy Webmoor on 31 January to talk about his current work on user-driven innovation, how he is finding the STS group at InSIS, and how he’s getting on at Oxford.

What brings you to Oxford, what brings you to the STS group here at InSIS?

What brings me to Oxford is my family. I’m so lucky to be married to an STS person who is also a STS researcher. And she had saved up on time to go on leave and she wanted to go somewhere interesting. Her interesting place is with John Law at the Open University. But she wanted me to come along and our family to come along as well, so I had to find some interesting place.  I thought about what would be an interesting STS environment in or around Oxford. InSIS was an obvious choice.

One benefit to having a scholar visit us is that we of course get to learn about you, your interests and background and where you’re coming from. At the same time it gives us a chance to see something about ourselves that perhaps we are not aware of. When you chose the STS group here as an interesting place, it was probably because of Steve Woolgar’s work on configuring the user. Had you also come in contact with some of the conferences and workshops that have been put on by the group here?

Steve’s work was the immediate eye catcher, but I also had heard about the Visualisation Conference. Another interest was the work going on with Mapping Controversies, and I heard that there was an Oxford version of this course. I had heard that Noortje Marres was a part of this. And I had met her at a conference. So in going to this STS unit I’d be able to talk to Steve about the relations around users in STS, and to Noortje about Mapping Controversies. That would be plenty of engaging things for me to do, on top of the writing projects that I have to finish.

So can I ask some more about your research project. I know you’re working on a paper about the ubiquity of the ‘user’ in popular discourse and professional constructions.

Let me begin by telling you a little bit about the empirical content first. As with many STSers I’ve started out with some interesting empirical phenomena. My phenomenon is a recent Danish obsession, almost, with user-driven innovation. There is much talk in Denmark about how can we engage anthropologists, ethnologists and others in studying users and their practices and how can we relate that to design and building new services or systems. And this has been taken up as a national innovation policy and two big funding programmes have been put in place. So from 2007 to around 2010 about 50 million pounds have been allocated to various projects into user-driven innovation. So there is a lot of activity going on. I’m agnostic about whether I’m a believer in user driven innovation or not, but I’m interested in how does this ‘thing’ get put on the agenda, how does it configure thinking about the user and the relations between the user and society. In my more lofty moments I’m thinking back to Shapin and Schaffer’s book Leviathon and the Air-Pump. They have this beautiful statement that the matter of ‘facts’ is at the same time an epistemological category and a social category. So by thinking about particular events in the laboratory as matters of fact you’re also configuring society to receive these facts. So the knowledge and the social organisation are two sides of the same coin. So if we have to understand the user in a new way, what kind of social configuration would that entail. In terms of the role of the users, the role for the publics, the role for social science, and for those that develop technologies.

A lot of coordination work is going into legitimizing and stabilising the user. So what is happening with the epistemic components of what you’re talking about? How would you see the user as an epistemic object? That is, as a valid source of knowledge, as generator of innovation, and so configured as an ‘origin’ of sorts and ‘sold’ as a valuable ingredient in innovation? What is the place of this ‘new’ user in the epistemic work of the design process?

Well I have various ideas about what is ‘new’ in terms of the user. What type of new object is emerging here. Right now I am trying to invoke a contrast between what I am calling an old conception of the user in STS and a new user. I don’t know if it will break down later. The old user would be put on the agenda by, for instance, Steve’s work, or by Oudshoorn and Pinch or Akrich and others. And their approach to the user is something that is co-constructed by some sort of open game with a new, tangible technology. Stories about the computer user, and the computer where the two entities fit or misfit or abuse each other in various way. So those are the well-established and very good work on the approach to the user. To study users in relation with specific technologies. But what I am trying to argue is that with these new projects, other perspectives seem to come in and perhaps new roles for STS researchers. It seems that, whereas at one stage there was an interest in developing particular technologies. Now it seems that there is a broader concern with how do we relate to customers in the globalised setting. Where you have an intensified competition on one hand and on the other hand greater customer mobility and lack of loyalty. So for this reason companies may have good reason to be more nervous about their customers. Not just how do they fit with certain products, but how can we second-guess them before they make their next move or we lose them to our competitors. How can we get closer to our customers? So this increased social nervousness about customers is part of the thing that factors into the interest in user driven innovation. I don’t think it is vocalised very much, but it seems to be part of the background arguments and analyses for putting these type of programmes in place.

Do you see this distrust of, and desire to know, the customer or user as being parallel to certain discussions in anthropology where the ‘informant’ or individual, as an epistemic subject, is considered untrustworthy. That is, providing unreliable knowledge and so an obstacle, of sorts, that must be gotten around. A stance which has prompted greater consideration of the material context, of devices, objects, everyday wares and so on that informants are embedded within. Or indeed, as we have heard much of at the recent Neurosociety Conference here at InSIS, the material traces of a ‘user’s’ brain. So that from an epistemic perspective these mundane things, these silent witnesses, are potentially more revealing and profitable.

If you look at some statements from influential policy acts in Denmark, they have said that we should now invite the anthropologists and ethnologists to help us develop new things and policies. If you look at some of their statements, they have very high hopes that these social science disciplines can come and tell us the users’ true, unacknowledged needs. Needs that we couldn’t get at with normal sources. Of course, what they will find is that these social science disciplines can help them with a lot of experience and a sophisticated discussion about this problem, about the category of user, rather than simply a solution of the problem. Within private companies, among designers and engineers, you can also see a similar discussion about ‘can we trust the users’. There are ongoing deliberations about what kind of material you can show to the users that they will not misinterpret. So, for example, a rule of thumb for engineers is as follows. You can either show users something that is a very early concept for a product, because then it is so sketchy and so made out of cardboard that they wouldn’t assume that it is the real project and they will comment upon the idea. Generating useful input at the beginning of the design iteration. But if you have something that is semi-finished, then they will focus too much on its appearance of not being done and so focus upon, according to the engineers, the wrong aspects. Whereas if you have a prototype that actually looks like a real product then again you can use their comments. So there is some sort of trough in the middle where you can’t ‘use the users’.

A provocative ending statement with nice resonance with Mackenzie’s ‘Certainty Trough.’ We look forward to hearing more about your project as it develops.

You’ve been in Oxford for a month now. How are you finding it? What’s been unusual, what’s been other than expected, what’s been exactly as you had thought?

I had hoped to find a buzzing, intellectual STS environment. And I think I found just that. I found many people who are deeply concerned and deeply knowledgeable about STS, the literature, various case studies, and love to discuss STS. So I think that has been as wonderful as I had hoped. The thing that characterises a well-functioning unit is that they have certain ‘pet topics’ in common. I’m sure you have several, but one is Steve’s work on reflexivity and that seems to be an on-going discussion and everyone seems to have a take on it. It is very nice to have an on-going theme there for everyone to relate to or disagree with. That’s the sort of on-going discussion that builds coherence.

Finally, have you discovered a favourite pub in Oxford?

Yes, well, the one next to Blackwell’s on Broad Street [The White Horse]. But that’s actually the only one that we’ve had time to visit. But I can say that I have a Costa Coffee Card.

That’s good. Already a card-carrying member of the Oxford community then.

Thanks for your time Torben.

Final Seminar on Policy and Expertise: Flyvbjerg, Lavén and Whyte on Innovation

by Lisa Stampnitzky

The last GAIn seminar this term brings together three scholars researching different facets of this most pervasive and all-encompassing of concepts, ‘Innovation’. In addition to discussing concrete case studies of innovation in practice, the seminar will serve as a forum to discuss different methodological approaches to the study of innovation practices and innovative actors. The discussant will be Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society.

Date: Tuesday, 08 March 2011
Time: 16:30-19:00
Location: Andrew Cormack seminar room, Saïd Business School

Real social science: applied phronesis
Bent Flyvbjerg (Saïd Business School, University of Oxford)

Bent Flyvbjerg’s research covers cost overruns and benefit shortfalls in major programmes, theories of success and failure, complexity and innovation, optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation, cost and demand forecasting in high-risk environments, risk assessment and management, and governance of major programmes. He is author and co-author of key references in the field of major programme management, including the books Megaprojects and Risk and Decision-Making on Mega-Projects.

Flyvbjerg furthermore does research on the philosophy of social science, where he has pioneered a research methodology called “phronetic social science,” described in his books Making Social Science Matter and Rationality and Power. His books and articles have been translated into 18 languages and his research covered by Science, The Economist, the Financial Times, The New York Times, the BBC, and many other media.

When policies meet practice: on the role of scripts in organizing innovation
Fredrik Lavén (School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg)

Since it is often argued that innovation is the driver of economic growth and societal prosperity, governments and policy makers often promote policies designed to stimulate innovation. Policies that build upon popular theories of innovation systems, clusters and triple helix interaction reflect the conviction that innovation occurs in networks of interacting companies, research institutions and public organizations. What happens when such policies meet practice? Using examples from studies of policy-making and two innovation initiatives in the Swedishtelecom and biomedical industries, Fredrik Lavén will explore how innovation theories are inscribed into policy and how these policies are translated into efforts of organizing innovation. Using the metaphor of scripts, he will show how the policies paradoxically prescribe the establishment of organizational structures rather than innovation activities. It is only when the scripts are edited, adjusted to local settings, interests and past experiences, that innovation work is made possible. The policy challenge is thus to facilitate local innovation practices rather than imposing or “policing” structure.

Fredrik Lavén is a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. His home institution is the University of Gothenburg and the School of Business, Economics and Law, where he is a researcher and lecturer within organization studies. In Gothenburg, Fredrik is affiliated to the Department of Business Administration, The Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Gothenburg Research Institute, where he is a member of the research programme Organizing in action-nets. Fredrik’s research interests concern organising, innovation, strategy and particularly the relationship between plans and action. Along with his research, he also works with undergraduate, graduate and executive education, both as a teacher, course director, and programme manager. Fredrik is also an associated consultant to the strategy consultancy NormannPartners.

Innovation and institutions: Episodes of inquiry
Jennifer Whyte (Design Innovation Research Centre, University of Reading)

Institutions constrain cognition, so how does innovation occur in highly institutionalised contexts? This working paper draws on a study that traces the episodes of inquiry through which glass becomes used as a structural material in building. Glass is a material that has been used for thousands of years and is known to be brittle—shattering when it breaks. Over the past three decades it has become radically re-imagined as a load-bearing material capable of enabling a range of distinct and innovative uses within buildings. This involves substantially more than taking existing glass elements and loading them with the weight of the building. Rather, new relationships have developed between glass, manufacturing methods, adhesives, clients, designers, manufacturers and building inspectors. The empirical study is used to develop new theory about expert work, and inquiry, in institutionalised fields.

Jennifer Whyte is a Reader in Innovation and Design in the School of Construction Management and Engineering at the University of Reading. Her research is on the organisational practices of innovation and design. She holds an Advanced Institute of Management (AIM) Fellowship on Management Practices in Project Based Design Environments, and is Director of the Design Innovation Research Centre, an exploration group that has a vision of a new mode of design in the digital economy.

Workshop on Storying: Register Now!

by Malte Ziewitz

Registration is now open for our informal, hands-on, self-organized workshop on storying:

Saturday, 5 March 2011, 9.30am-1pm
James Martin Seminar Room, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society
Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

What is it to tell a story in social science research? What techniques, strategies and narrative devices are available and how can we make the most of them? What audiences do we write for and how are they configured in the text? How can we approach the often daunting yet essential task of academic writing? In this three-hour workshop, we will explore different story-telling strategies while asking how we can make them productive for our research projects.

The workshop is organized as an interactive experience. Rather than listening to lectures and absorbing theory, we will engage in a number of hands-on exercises. These include discussions on stories and storying, in which we apply and experiment with concepts from the background readings, alongside short writing and editing exercises. The overall goal is to learn from each other and explore with different modes of storying.

The workshop is open to anyone with an interest in story-telling. Anthropology, sociology, STS, geography, management studies – everyone is welcome.

Background readings:

Frank, A. (2010). Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Richardson, L. (1990). Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Qualitative Methodology Series.

Preparation: This workshop involves (some) work. In addition to the background readings, you will be asked to read a set of stories and review one of them for the group. Please bring pencil and paper. There will be breakfast and snacks.

Registration: To keep the group manageable, we will limit it to eight. Please sign up early by e-mailing the organisers.

Contact & questions:

Fadhila Mazanderani,
Malte Ziewitz,

The workshop is generously supported by the STS group at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

Update: Thanks for all your interest! All places have been taken now, but we have an (unfortunately quite long) waiting list you can sign up for.

Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation conference: Programme and registration

by Timothy Webmoor

The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) is organising a two-day conference on 25-26 March 2011 at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, with support from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the Oxford e-Social Science project, Digital Social Reserach, eResearch South and CD4.

Date: 25-26 March 2011
Location: Saïd Business School, University of Oxford (map)

About the conference:

The theme of the conference is the permeation of science and research with computational seeing. How does computer mediated vision as a mode of engagement with information as well as with one another affect what we see (or think we see), and what we take ourselves to know?

Background and themes
Conference programme
Keynote speakers
Travel arrangements

Register online

Speakers include:

Peter Galison, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
Michael Lynch, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University
Steve Woolgar, InSIS, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Summarising discussants:
Anne Beaulieu, Virtual Knowledge Studio
Paolo Quattrone, IE Business School and Fulbright New Century Scholar

For more information: